It’s a map of Africa but not as you would usually know it. From a distance it resembles the texture of oyster mushrooms, their delicate fluted forms cast into whorls of soft colour. Up close you can make out the words that have combined to create the map, and the pages of books that have been delicately folded and glued together to create it.
This artwork “Africa Reinvented” has earned Keri Muller her title as the “book artist” or as Google’s search terms locate her, “Cape Town’s origami expert”. Muller didn’t get to her art by a conventional path and she describes herself more as a “maker” of stuff. It sounds like trendy nomenclature but it’s a fitting description as her work ranges from folding paper to designing with found objects, graphic design, illustration and even jewellery-making.
Muller studied interior design but managed to last for only a year working in that field. “I found everyone to be terribly hung up on scatter cushions,” she says, a fixation she just didn’t share. She went off traveling and fell in love with tourism, coming back to work in marketing and product development for tour operators representing East Africa. Then three years ago she moved to Mozambique, and she says she came back with “a much bigger appreciation of the fact that every moment of one’s life does count and you can’t fritter it away being 60 percent content.” That’s when she started making stuff. “Because I couldn’t bear to go back to office life, it became my major motivation for wanting to work for myself”, she says. Her efforts snowballed into a new business.
I had spotted the Africa made of books in a store in Cape Town in December and was determined to track down the artist, which I did online via her blog Simple Intrigue a few days later. The artwork is evocative as much for it being made of words and ideas as it because of growing nostalgia about the book as physical object steadily being replaced by file transfers and downloads, Kindles and iPads.
I asked when she first started folding paper [It almost sounds like something one would need to get treatment for]. She says it was just over two years ago. “I have always loved old books and I spent a lot of time in second-hand bookshops and I became aware of how many of the books actually got pulped. You know you go into a second hand bookshop and they are not madly busy but there always loads of books coming in.”
She explains that because of the toxicity of the glue used to create the spines of books most paperbacks never enjoy life post-pulping as a book. The most they can hope for is to come back as the inner of a toilet roll.
“I started with a pop-up book. I cut a book and used the story and the imagery to do a tableau scene. I was using old atlases and annuals to fold paper flowers and I made this big paper flower creeper and then it started rolling from there.”
Muller has a straightforward approach to the business of her artworks. “I think it’s because I don’t have an art background that I have a very business-oriented take on making stuff. I make things and try new things and I am not precious about it.” She says one of the most challenging parts of being in a creative business is that it’s part of an industry “where nobody wants to talk about business”.
“I started a thing called creative entrepreneurs where I get together with a bunch of creative industry business-owners just so we can talk about leveraging one’s business to make real money. Finding a business mentor is near impossible because they are so furiously busy. Being able to talk to other people about cash flow, product development, markets and sales has been really exciting. It’s added another layer to it all. Other people cringe when I say I want to commercialise my work – but that’s what I do. I sell stuff whether it’s ideas, quirky things or artworks.
Apart from her commercial range of cards, prints and illustrations, she also creates the book artworks and takes commissions for bespoke pieces. Every one of these is hand-made including a recent forest of trees she created out of newspapers and magazines for Naspers media group’s team conference to an installation created for the SA Literary Awards, which she spent 10 hours building at the venue the night before the event, and dismantled the following day.
Muller’s Africa Reinvented now hangs in my home – made from titles by Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard, among others. While she didn’t start out with the idea of saving books from a hideous fate, her work goes some way to restoring the book to its place as an object worthy of being fetishized, and perhaps for future generations, one associated, sadly, with historical artefact.